SMU interim head coach Tom Mason gives directions from the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college football game against TCU Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014, in Dallas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
LM Otero
October 03, 2014
SMU interim head coach Tom Mason gives directions from the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college football game against TCU Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014, in Dallas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
LM Otero

GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) East Carolina earned the program's first national ranking in six years by beating two power-conference opponents, the last win coming with a record-setting offensive showing.

Now, as they begin play in their new American Athletic Conference home against struggling SMU, the No. 22 Pirates don't want to squander that strong start.

''When you put in a lot of hard work, yeah, it feels good to get recognized for it,'' senior quarterback Shane Carden said. ''At the same time ... it's almost worse if you had (the ranking) and fell off of it. So we understand that and we want to sustain it this whole season.''

East Carolina (3-1) won at Virginia Tech then beat North Carolina 70-41 on Sept. 20, setting a program record with 789 total yards.

The Pirates were last ranked in 2008, using early wins against Virginia Tech and West Virginia to reach No. 14 in the Top 25 before falling out of the poll before the end of September.

They re-entered the poll after the UNC rout, their fourth straight win against Atlantic Coast Conference programs. ECU was off last weekend.

''It's nice and it's hard to do so I don't want to devalue it in any way, but I guess we care a lot more about what that number is beside us after the 13th game and not the fourth,'' offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said. ''But if we had to pick, we're certainly glad there's one by us.''

At this point, SMU (0-4) is looking for small signs of improvement in a tumultuous first month of the season. Coach June Jones resigned after two games for unspecified personal reasons, while the offense has managed one touchdown and 12 total points with two shutout losses in four games.

''I just keep telling the kids, `Hey, we didn't get this way overnight and it ain't going to solve itself overnight,'' interim coach Tom Mason said. ''We've just got to keep playing hard and I think the kids are buying into that stuff.''

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Here are things to watch in the Pirates' game against the Mustangs:

ANEMIC OFFENSE: The Mustangs' offensive numbers aren't pretty. They're averaging 207.2 yards per game, with their only touchdown coming on a 33-yard touchdown pass on the final play of a 43-6 loss to North Texas in Week 2. SMU is also averaging 1.4 yards per rush and 3 yards per play overall.

STRENGTH VS. WEAKNESS: SMU is allowing an AAC-worst 551 yards and 50.5 points per game. ECU, meanwhile, leads the league in the major offensive categories while averaging 43.2 points and 581.5 yards. It sets the Pirates up for a huge day if everything goes to plan.

ECU'S RUNNING GAME: Pirates coach Ruffin McNeill said his team has a committee at running back with Breon Allen, Chris Hairston and Marquez Grayson. But Allen has a chance to solidify his hold on the leading role by following up his 211-yard day against the Tar Heels with another strong performance.

TURNOVERS: One of the biggest defensive improvements for the Pirates last year was their 24 takeaways. But they've managed just five in four games this season, a number that will have to go up as they push further into AAC play.

HARDY'S RECORD WATCH: East Carolina receiver Justin Hardy has the chance to finish as the career leader in receptions in bowl subdivision history this season. Hardy is 55 catches away and could add a big chunk to his stats Saturday.

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Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

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